Disappointment is one of the most frequently experienced emotions, often with high intensity. However, few of us really know how to deal with it. Let’s dive into where disappointment comes from as well as how to process it and communicate about it.
Check Your Expectations
We all have relational desires and needs. The desire for love is not wrong, it’s when you expect love in a certain way or demand it in a certain way that it becomes an issue to manage.
Humans fall short. Our partners fall short. We fall short. Mistakes are guaranteed. We often paint a picture in our minds of how things will go and how they will look. We tend to visualize an entire scenario, conversation, or outcome that hasn’t played out yet. Often, it doesn’t end up looking like that picture, sometimes not at all. Brene Brown says that the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.
Realize you’re having an emotional feeling or reaction to an existing set of expectations. This can look or feel like a pushed button, disappointment, anger, heart racing, an urge to hide, craving comfort, numbness, stomach in knots, etc. Don’t offload these. Don’t act out or shut down but lean in and get curious. Just recognize it. And feel it.
Develop an awareness about your thinking, feelings, and behaviors and know that they are connected. Address all three as equally important parts of a whole. Fear can sometimes get in the way of doing this. We don’t like how difficult emotions feel and we’re worried about where they will go or what people might think. We don’t know what to do with it. It can feel terrible. It can feel exposing or even risky. Our instincts can be to run from the emotions. Most of us were never taught how to hold discomfort, sit with it, or communicate it, only how to discharge or dump it.
Acknowledge that picture that you painted. Notice reality looks different.
There’s always an ideal (what you want to happen) and the real (what actually ends up happening). It’s important to acknowledge both and also to grieve the difference between the two. We can’t heal if we can’t grieve; we can’t forgive if we can’t grieve. We run from grief because loss scares us yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend. It’s helpful to have a reality check and dig into the intentions driving the expectations (that are leading to the disappointment).
Helpful questions to consider (adapted from “Atlas of the Heart“):
Do you have a painting/movie in your head?
What do you want to happen?
What will this mean to you?
Are you setting expectations that are outside of your control?
Have you shared your expectations?
Have you asked anyone what they want/need?
Will you be okay if the other person doesn’t respond/act the way you hope they will?
Rumble With Your Disappointment
There isn’t a single person who hasn’t needed to process through (or rumble as Brown refers to it in “Rising Strong“) their expectations, disappointment, and resentment. It’s a standing rumble for most of us. Rumbling with disappointment, expectations, and resentment is a necessary process in order to get to a place of healing, freedom, and contentment. It’s important to realize that phrases like “I just thought,” “but I wanted,” and “I counted on this happening” are a slippery slope to disappointment.
Stealth expectations are sneaky expectations that often coast along under the radar, making themselves known only after they have bombed something we had high hopes for.
If your story is full of questions or confusion, there is likely a story of stealth expectations at play and the disappointment they have produced.
Blame often follows disappointment. Whether it’s self-blame or pointing the finger at someone else, blame is usually near disappointment. Let blame be an indicator to pause and consider your expectations and disappointment. Don’t underestimate the damage it can inflict on your spirits. A lifetime of unexplored disappointments can make you bitter and stored-up resentment can be toxic.
Jennie Allen writes in her book, “Get Out Of Your Head“, that cynicism also follows closely with disappointment. Cynicism says: I’m surrounded by incompetence, fraudsters, and disappointment. It usually grows because we think we deserve better than what we’re getting and at the root of this cynicism is crippling hurt. Cynicism says that nobody can be trusted and we are never safe. Choosing not to rumble with disappointment means choosing to hold on to cynicism, hurt, and blame.
When disappointment happens, it’s an opportunity for meaningful connection. Disappointment is not the time to withhold. Use your disappointment as a catalyst for a productive conversation. It can be a way to move your ideal closer to reality if done in a healthy way.
Disappointment should also not cause you to withhold positive feedback, conversations, or actions either. You can still make your partner feel good about themselves even when they annoy or disappoint you. Couples who withhold positive feedback because they think it has been canceled out by disappointments are disconnected and unhealthy. According to Terry Real, withholding admiration and praise because you’re angry is just plain destructive.
Grace is never calling a wrong right. Grace is a way of dealing with what is wrong.
Instead of “You did this to me and now you’re going to pay the price.”, grace says “We’re both human, let’s talk about this.”
Don’t ever underestimate the amount of hurt that can take place in relationships.
Marriage is a place where you can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Life and relationships are full of micro-disappointments. Expect them. Prepare for them. Communicate about them. You can’t expect your partner to share your values at all times or have the same movie script in their minds. This leads to disillusionment, disappointment, anger, and disconnection. Choose grace, acceptance, and compassion instead.
Speak Up (Kindly)
Don’t bottle up your frustration and disappointment. Instead, try to communicate your feelings respectfully, going into it with a mindset of sharing your perspective versus blaming or attacking. Remember, unexamined and unexpressed expectations are what Brown calls “stealth expectations.” They are an automatic disconnector.
Often, expectations come down to fear, a need for certainty, or a need for rest/play. It’s so hard to ask for these sometimes. But not asking doesn’t stop you from expecting. Communicating is brave and vulnerable. Choose to examine and express rather than lower or diminish your needs, desires, and expectations.
When you’ve processed your disappointment and are ready to speak, make sure that you and the other person are rested and not flooded. Make sure that you have adequate time and are comfortable. It’s also helpful to have a pause word if one of you starts getting upset. Using the template: “I’m feeling ____ about ____ and need/would love _____” can often help lower defensiveness and allow you to be heard and understood.
Let It Go
After you speak up, let go of it. Don’t walk around like a resentful victim. Sometimes in our lives, the best course of action is to let go and move on. Remember the good, have gratitude, and grieve the things that you aren’t going to get.
None of us can escape rejection and disappointment unless we take no risks. If we live courageously, we will experience and survive rejections, losses, and disappointments that are not fair.
I wish I could give six easy steps to accomplish this goal with ease and grace but it really does take time and practice. We can’t just decide that letting go is the mature and reasonable thing to do and then poof, make it happen. We have to make the decision to grow our awareness, reality-check ourselves, communicate, and then let something go. Then we must remind ourselves of the joy and freedom we gain from doing so when triggered, hurt, or disappointed again.
Kristi Schwegman is a psychotherapist specializing in helping couples develop healthy relationships, whether dating, engaged, or married. She also draws from her Christian-based approach to lead individuals in becoming aware of the limiting beliefs that can get them stuck.
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